I'll circle back to a couple of these later today. But at the moment, I've got the following queued up for my lunch hour:
- The Washington Post charitably describes yesterday's press conference in France as "a glimpse into Trump's unorthodox mind." As in, he lied through the whole thing.
- MSNBC says the G7 as a whole (which ended in the aforementioned presser) shows that other world leaders have learned to manipulate the president pretty well.
- Brazil, meanwhile has become the latest country to discover that authoritarian leaders don't know what they're doing and cover it up with bluster and blame-shifting. Oh, and corruption.
- And when those authoritarian leaders (and wannabes) tank the economy, millennials will, once again, get the worst of it. (Though we Xers aren't exactly raking it in either.)
- Via Schneier, Lawfare raises the alarm about the dangers of fake scientific research.
- Adam Gopnik asks, are spies worth it?
- Meanwhile, Riz Virk argues that we need to figure out if we're in a simulation.
- Finally, Microsoft's Raymond Chen takes us back to the days when software used to cost manufacturers a dollar a byte. (That's around when TV producers paid about $1 per foot, or 2/3 of as second, for film.)
That's enough of a queue for now.
So much to read, so much eye strain from the fluorescent lights:
And finally, this year's Punderdome competition took on food; the audience ate it up.
Pulitzer Prize-winning author Art Spiegelman (Maus) submitted an essay for a Marvel Comics compendium to be published this fall, but withdrew it when Marvel asked him to delete a reference to the "Orange Skull." The Guardian published it instead:
Auschwitz and Hiroshima make more sense as dark comic book cataclysms than as events in our real world. In today’s all too real world, Captain America’s most nefarious villain, the Red Skull, is alive on screen and an Orange Skull haunts America. International fascism again looms large (how quickly we humans forget – study these golden age comics hard, boys and girls!) and the dislocations that have followed the global economic meltdown of 2008 helped bring us to a point where the planet itself seems likely to melt down. Armageddon seems somehow plausible and we’re all turned into helpless children scared of forces grander than we can imagine, looking for respite and answers in superheroes flying across screens in our chapel of dreams.
I turned the essay in at the end of June, substantially the same as what appears here. A regretful Folio Society editor told me that Marvel Comics (evidently the co-publisher of the book) is trying to now stay “apolitical”, and is not allowing its publications to take a political stance. I was asked to alter or remove the sentence that refers to the Red Skull or the intro could not be published. I didn’t think of myself as especially political compared with some of my fellow travellers, but when asked to kill a relatively anodyne reference to an Orange Skull I realised that perhaps it had been irresponsible to be playful about the dire existential threat we now live with, and I withdrew my introduction.
A revealing story serendipitously showed up in my news feed this week. I learned that the billionaire chairman and former CEO of Marvel Entertainment, Isaac “Ike” Perlmutter, is a longtime friend of Donald Trump’s, an unofficial and influential adviser and a member of the president’s elite Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Florida. And Perlmutter and his wife have each recently donated $360,000 (the maximum allowed) to the Orange Skull’s “Trump Victory Joint Fundraising Committee” for 2020. I’ve also had to learn, yet again, that everything is political... just like Captain America socking Hitler on the jaw.
Bruce Schneier has an eight-step plan—though he recognizes Step 1 might not be possible:
Since the 2016 US presidential election, there have been an endless series of ideas about how countries can defend themselves. It's time to pull those together into a comprehensive approach to defending the public sphere and the institutions of democracy.
Influence operations don't come out of nowhere. They exploit a series of predictable weaknesses -- and fixing those holes should be the first step in fighting them. In cybersecurity, this is known as a "kill chain." That can work in fighting influence operations, too -- laying out the steps of an attack and building the taxonomy of countermeasures.
Step 1: Find the cracks in the fabric of society -- the social, demographic, economic, and ethnic divisions. For campaigns that just try to weaken collective trust in government's institutions, lots of cracks will do. But for influence operations that are more directly focused on a particular policy outcome, only those related to that issue will be effective.
Countermeasures: There will always be open disagreements in a democratic society, but one defense is to shore up the institutions that make that society possible. Elsewhere I have written about the "common political knowledge" necessary for democracies to function. That shared knowledge has to be strengthened, thereby making it harder to exploit the inevitable cracks. It needs to be made unacceptable -- or at least costly -- for domestic actors to use these same disinformation techniques in their own rhetoric and political maneuvering, and to highlight and encourage cooperation when politicians honestly work across party lines. The public must learn to become reflexively suspicious of information that makes them angry at fellow citizens. These cracks can't be entirely sealed, as they emerge from the diversity that makes democracies strong, but they can be made harder to exploit. Much of the work in "norms" falls here, although this is essentially an unfixable problem. This makes the countermeasures in the later steps even more important.
Also unfortunately, most of the countermeasures require informed and conscientious political leaders. Good luck with that.
In another example of how President Trump's incompetence and disordered thinking has real-world consequences, Michelle Goldberg lays out the connection between the president's lies to one leader have caused another country to take a frightening rightward turn:
n July, during a White House visit by Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, Trump offered to mediate India and Pakistan’s long-running conflict over Kashmir, even suggesting that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi had asked him to do so. Modi’s government quickly denied this, and Trump’s words reportedly alarmed India, which has long resisted outside involvement in Kashmir. Two weeks later, India sent troops to lock Kashmir down, then stripped it of its autonomy.
Americans have grown used to ignoring Trump’s casual lies and verbal incontinence, but people in other countries have not. Thornton thinks the president’s comments were a “precipitating factor” in Modi’s decision to annex Kashmir. By blundering into the conflict, she suggested, Trump put the Indian prime minister on the defensive before his Hindu nationalist constituency. “He might not have had to do that,” she said of Modi’s Kashmir takeover, “but he would have had to do something. And this was the thing he was looking to do anyway.”
At the same time, Modi can be confident that Trump, unlike previous American presidents, won’t even pretend to care about democratic backsliding or human rights abuses, particularly against Muslims. “There’s a cost-benefit analysis that any political leader makes,” said Ben Rhodes, a former top Obama national security aide. “If the leader of India felt like he was going to face public criticism, potential scrutiny at the United Nations,” or damage to the bilateral relationship with the United States, “that might affect his cost-benefit analysis.” Trump’s instinctive sympathy for authoritarian leaders empowers them diplomatically.
We have, at minimum, 522 more days of this clown. What more damage can he do? I'm not looking forward to finding out.
When your stupid, racist, age-befuddled uncle says something dumb at Thanksgiving dinner, the best course of action might be to ignore him. Unfortunately, when your stupid, racist, age-befuddled president says something dumb, you have to respond in some way. Which is how the U.S. has now ended up in a diplomatic tiff with, of all places, Denmark:
President Trump faced a fierce European backlash to his reported interest in acquiring Greenland from Denmark, as some lawmakers compared the idea to colonialism on Friday while officials on the island said they welcome investment but not a new owner.
“Of course, Greenland is not for sale,” Greenland’s government said in a statement, echoing earlier remarks by Greenland’s Foreign Minister Ane Lone Bagger.
In its statement, the government said it viewed the reports “as an expression of greater interest in investing in our country and the possibilities we offer.”
The news of Trump’s interest in purchasing Greenland comes ahead of a planned visit to the Danish capital of Copenhagen next month. Danes are worried this will derail the agenda of Trump’s trip.
“It will suck the oxygen out of the room and it will take over everything,” said Jon Rahbek-Clemmensen, a professor at the Institute for Military Operations at the Royal Danish Defence College.
Meanwhile, a Fox News (!) poll shows the four Democratic front-runners easily trouncing the president in 2020. Let's hope so.
As our planet warms to global average temperatures not seen in over 125,000 years, a pair of long-range studies has concluded the unique way or climate is changing right now, as opposed to the rest of history:
“The familiar maxim that the climate is always changing is certainly true,” Scott St. George, a physical geographer at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, said in a written commentary about the studies. “But even when we push our perspective to the earliest days of the Roman Empire, we cannot discern any event that is remotely equivalent — either in degree or extent — to the warming over the last few decades.”
One of the studies, published in the journal Nature, shows that the Little Ice Age and other natural fluctuations affected only limited regions of the planet at a time, making modern warming the first and only planetwide warm period in the past two millennia. The other study, published in Nature Geoscience, shows that the rate of modern warming has far outpaced changes that occurred before the rise of the industrial era.
For the Nature Geoscience study, the researchers charted global temperature averages over time, and then compared the data to a set of climate simulations to figure out what might have driven the changes. Neukom and his colleagues found that the fastest warming in the last two millennia occurred during the second half of the 20th century.
The researchers also found that the main cause of temperature fluctuations changed over time. Prior to 1850, fluctuations were mainly linked to volcanic eruptions, which cooled the planet by spewing sun-blocking ash into the stratosphere; after 1850, greenhouse gas emissions took the wheel.
As if to underscore that, today London saw temperatures over 37°C while France and other parts of Europe set new all-time heat records, with a reading of 42.6°C in Paris today.
The Conservative Party membership have elected Boris Johnson, an incompetent layabout and buffoon, to lead the Party, passing over the competent and level-headed Foreign Secretary Jeffrey Hunt by almost a 2:1 majority (92,153 to 46,656). Wednesday afternoon, Johnson will go to Buckingham Palace where, no doubt masterfully hiding her disgust, the Queen will invite him to form what will probably be the last government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Johnson will become the second PM not chosen in a general election, sort of if Gerald Ford had stepped down and made Pat Buchanan President in early 1976. The 92,000 Conservatives who voted for him are nearly all old, white, male, and English, representing only a bit more than 1/10 of 1% of the UK population.
Johnson has pledged to crash the UK out of the European Union by October 31st "do or die," which he may accomplish, though a narrow window still exists for a vote of no confidence followed by the statutory 60 days of dithering before a new election can happen.
The fun bit is that now Johnson completely and totally owns Brexit. His misleading campaign in 2016 persuaded the UK's equivalent of Trumpland to vote by a narrow margin for the policy that will, everyone can see, break Scotland and Northern Ireland out of the Union. And now he gets to lead the country through all that chaos. Only, he hasn't exactly got a record of taking responsibility or even of acknowledging that such a thing can even happen to him, so the next few months should be entertaining. As Guardian columnist Gary Younge said this morning, "The leave campaign had no more plans for leaving the European Union than a dog chasing a car has to drive it."
It's hard not to look at Johnson as less than the apotheosis of upper-class twittery that the Conservative Party has kept alive for a couple of centuries now. And with Labour careening so far to the left under Jeremy Corbyn, it almost seems like we're in for a return to the Callaghan/Heath years of the early 1970s, with the British economy stagnating under state ownership of industry while a patrician right-wing Tory party offers to do in the NHS.
And the best part? All of this is in Russia's best interests. We're going back to the '70s all right, only this time, the Soviets are winning.
But I will take the time as soon as I get it:
Now, I need more tea, and more coding.
This week's Economist features a collection of "what-if" stories that attempt to present near-future events well within the realm of possibility. First up, what if an American destroyer were surrounded by small Chinese boats in the contested waters of the South China Sea...next October?
The official account of the crisis begins with a terse Pentagon statement, issued on October 9th, that the McCampbell, an Arleigh Burke class destroyer, had been forced to stop in international waters by vessels “answering to China’s military chain of command” while conducting a “routine, lawful transit in the vicinity of the Paracel Islands”.
The Pentagon demanded that China allow the McCampbell “and all its equipment” to continue its passage. The reference to equipment was clarified an hour later when Xinhua, China’s state news agency, released a video showing Chinese fishermen with boathooks grabbing at a half-submerged underwater drone fouled in a net, described as an American spy submarine. A second Xinhua video showed an inflatable speedboat, manned by armed American sailors, apparently adjacent to the drone but trapped by two dozen Chinese fishing boats organised into a ring formation.
Both countries agree on some of what happened next. After about 30 minutes the American inflatable broke through the circle of fishing boats as sailors fired shots with their small arms, and returned to the destroyer, where Ji-Hoon Kim, one of the speedboat’s crew, was reported missing. Soon afterwards a growing fleet of Chinese fishing trawlers, many of them flying large red flags, surrounded the McCampbell.
Could this happen? Absolutely. How would it end? I suppose that depends on the temperaments of the leaders in both countries...
Other speculations include the departure of Facebook from Europe, the failure of most antibiotics, America's withdrawal from NATO, and an historical one speculating on the Allies being more reasonable with the Central Powers in 1919.